In a fascinating 1942 essay, C.S. Lewis offered a “universal law” of human experience:
Every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. . . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first. (“First and Second Things,” in God in the Dock)
In other words, overvaluing a lesser good results, paradoxically, in losing it. In a letter to his friend Dom Bede Griffiths, Lewis expanded on his observation, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”
Lewis applied his law of firsts and seconds to everyday life. The woman who makes her dog the center of her life loses “not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.” The man who focuses solely on the woman he loves, doing nothing but contemplating her, eventually loses the pleasure of loving her, as well as all the other things that make life rich and enjoyable. On a much larger scale, Lewis believed that the civilization of his day was imperiled because it had been putting itself first, rather than second to a higher good.
Woe to Second Thing Seekers
Jesus himself taught that seeking second things first results in losing both first and second things. And not only in this life (as Lewis emphasized), but forever. In Luke 6:24–26, Jesus pronounced four woes.
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
These four woes match the four Beatitudes that come immediately before them, each of which describes future blessing from God in his eternal kingdom (“you shall be satisfied, you shall laugh”). Correspondingly, the woes describe an eternal state of divine judgment upon God’s enemies.
It may appear, at first sight, as though Jesus warns his hearers not to be rich, full, happy, or well-regarded. But, as J.C. Ryle pointed out long ago, Abraham and Job were rich, with plenty to eat; King David laughed and rejoiced; and Timothy had a good reputation, as did the seven men appointed to serve the church in Acts 6. So, what is Jesus actually warning against?
No Good Apart from God
The key is the last phrase of the fourth woe: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” Jesus warns not against a good reputation per se, but specifically the sort of good reputation enjoyed by the false prophets. We’re in danger of divine judgment when we’re well-thought-of for ungodly reasons, when we say what’s not true to gain the good opinion of others, sacrificing truth for popularity.
This helps us understand Jesus’s woes. Jesus doesn’t pronounce woe upon all who are rich, but upon those who find their consolation in riches rather than in God — who treasure their wealth above God. Jesus doesn’t pronounce woe upon all who are satisfied, but upon those who place the satisfaction of their appetites above God.
Jesus doesn’t pronounce woe upon all joyful people, but upon those who seek happiness apart from God. The problem is not wealth, food, laughter, or reputation in and of themselves. It’s the idolatry of elevating such things above God. When that happens, the law of firsts and seconds applies, forever.
Do You Love It Enough to Love It Less?
Consider the first woe: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” God is a first thing. Money is a second thing. Yet we know it’s easy to trust money more than God, pursue it harder than we pursue God, and use it for ourselves rather than for God. Wealth may become our protector and comforter.
Jesus says that if we put wealth above God, we’ve already received all the consolation we’ll ever get; namely, our present bank account, investment portfolio, and retirement plan. But this consolation will not last long, because God’s judgment will fall. If we pursue wealth more than God, we’ll lose God and also, eventually, our wealth.
In Luke 12, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who trusts in his wealth, plans to build bigger barns to store his crops, and looks forward to relaxing, eating, drinking, and being merry. God calls him a fool and tells him he’ll die that night. Jesus says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). He valued God’s gifts over God, and therefore, in the end, was left with neither God nor gift.
What About Food?
The same is true in Jesus’s second woe: “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” It’s wonderful to prepare and eat a delicious meal. When God is firmly first in our lives, a world of guilt-free, God-glorifying culinary pleasure opens before us. We enjoy food more because we know who made it and gave it. Putting first things first, we get second things thrown in.
But when we let our stomachs rule, we begin to live for meal times. We think about food too much. We draw too much comfort from it. We overeat. Thus, we minimize our present enjoyment of food, feeling stuffed, overweight, and enslaved. And in the end, we lose the enjoyment altogether. We’re hungry, dissatisfied, and empty forever.
Love Everything for God’s Sake
No matter what gift you can think of — reputation, money, sex, influence, music, even the love of family and friends — the principle remains the same: the best way to destroy your joy in them (and, more importantly, your soul) is to seek them above or in place of God.
Jesus is most emphatically not against our enjoyment of God-given pleasures. But if we place gifts before God, he warns we will lose both.
Augustine prayed, “He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.” Jesus wants us to enjoy both God and his gifts. We will have both forever if — and only if — we keep God first.